Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Ten Thoughts on: X-Men: First Class

Ten Thoughts on X-Men: First Class

1. What an absolute triumph of casting, first and foremost. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender seem like no-brainers, now, as Xavier and Magneto, but they're seriously just beyond perfect. Their relationship is intense right off the bat, and they both do an excellent job of selling the essential schism between their philosophies of mutant empowerment. Also, not sure if you've heard, but they're both kind of insanely sexy and use that to their advantage quite well. That scene with the both of them patronizing Zoe Kravitz in the champagne room? Damn.

2. But the brilliant casting goes beyond the leads. The young mutants that make up Xavier's original charges were all terrifically sympathetic, led by Jennifer Lawrence, whose face is a picture of still waters running deep. Nicholas Hoult was great playing a) American and b) counter to his more smirkily charismatic roles in A Single Man and Skins. John and I both emerged from the theater raving about Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, and not just because he looks like he could be kissing cousins with Ron Weasley. And my favorite twink from Hannah Montana Lucas Till really showed up well as Havok, and by "showed up well" I do mostly mean "wore sleeveless t-shirts" but also he was an integral member of the team! One of the triumphs of execution in Matthew Vaughn's film is how quickly it establishes these X-babies as a team, with loyalties and conflicts and distinct relationships. When you see them all finally hit the battlefield, it's cathartic and emotionally charged.

3. Also, I know not everybody is a January Jones fan, but my God was she an absolutely perfect choice for Emma Frost. Everything she puts into making Betty Draper a monstrous ice queen works even better as Emma, who even manages to have a bit of un-Betty-like fun with her superiority over the puny non-mutant humans.

4. Zoe Kravitz doesn't get a ton to do, but remember how when you first heard Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz had a baby together, and you were like, "That baby is going to be, like, otherworldly beautiful"? This movie gives you a really great payoff.

5. One of the more difficult to avoid pitfalls in either prequels or origin stories is the grocery-list effect, where the film becomes a matter of waiting for characters to emerge, iconography to be acquired, and the mythology-building events we've been hearing about for decades to happen, all so we can arrive at approximately the point we were at in the first movies. It becomes airless and perfunctory and not a lot of fun. Part of the reason First Class doesn't feel that way is because Vaughn gives us a great story -- stopping Sebastian Shaw from inciting World War III via the Cuban Missile crisis -- that, for lack of a better term, distracts us from the buildup to these signposts. Another example: Beast's furry origin. We know in our heads that Hank McCoy is going to go from nerdy scientist with monstrous (but flesh-colored) feet to a permanent big blue ball o' fur; we can even see how it'll get there, what with the serum that will hopefully "cure" both Hank and Mystique of their hideous exterior afflictions. But the characters, their motivations, and the performances are all strong enough that it feels like a complete (and tragic) story rather than a means to an end. Actually, I take back what I said before about distracting us from these inevitabilities. It's more that they feel earned and organic. I'll say right now that even though I pretty much knew where this movie was going to leave the X-Men story, the climactic moment that leaves Xavier in his wheelchair still caught me by surprise.

6. Really excellent effects work, particularly on Emma Frost's diamond armor.

7. I liked how the retro-'60s aesthetic was more than just superficial décor (and the odd "groovy" language tic), but really seeped into the filmmaking itself. The old Cold War maps, the Dr. Strangelove war rooms, Michael Ironside doing his best John Wayne at the navy blockade -- it goes beyond kitchsy throwback. This is a clear stylistic choice, and the film wears it well.

8. Vaughn was pretty smart in the ways he honored continuity and shrugged it off. Moments like young Magneto bending the gates at Auschwitz, or the way the misty mutant-scape of Cerebro is conveyed are matched closely to the original films, in a purposeful nod towards continuity. But I also like the way Vaughn doesn't hesitate to, say, re-shape Moira McTaggart into a CIA agent because it makes the story run more smoothly. The bond between Xavier and Mystique -- which, best I can tell, was invented out of whole cloth -- is pretty much the emotional backbone of the story.

9. Damon Lindelof tweeted on Saturday that First Class has "the best deployment of the PG-13 single-use eff-bomb I have ever seen." I concur. (Of course, he also went and -- completely umprompted -- called January Jones out for "sucking at acting," proving once again that Damon Lindelof is one of those celebrities who should not be on Twitter.)

10. I try not to concern myself too much with box-office, because that shit's beyond my control and not worth fretting about, but I worry that the soft-ish opening of First Class might make a sequel more of an arduous process. Because, like the best franchise movies, First Class REALLY made me itchy to see where the story goes from here.


Danny said...

I'm a January Jones apologist when it comes to Mad Men, but I thought she was pretty terrible in this movie. In theory, the perfect casting choice, of course, but I found her line deliveries just atrocious.

Joe Reid said...

See, my counter to that is: what line deliveries? I barely remember her saying anything. It was all in her comportment, the condescending stare, that bored look while the Soviet premier (or whatever) makes sex to her projection. I feel like line delivery was about eighth on the list of things that went into that performance.

Jon said...

I felt as strongly about the film as you did, Joe. Out of all of the X-Men films, this is probably my favorite (with "X2" a very close second). As for January Jones, her acting skills may be limited to the icy Betty Draper/Emma Frost components, but she does them very well. I completely bought her as Emma Frost, as I did with everyone else in the film. It's the first X-Men film that I thought "I need to own this movie" as I was watching it for the first time.

will said...

Caleb Jones = Crucifictorius drummer!

RJ said...


Patty M. said...

Joe, your #5 immediately made me flash back to the Simpsons episode when Moe was a young camp counselor, blew up in anger after receiving what he thought was a prank phone call, then said, "And that's the origin of that."